Innovation

Hack the gender: Womens hackathon aims to show young women a future in tech

Students from across the country gathered at West Virginia University to tackle not only wearables, but the gender gap.

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Image: David Smith, WVU College of Media

When Carlee Lammers drove one of her friends home after the Hack the Gender: A Women's Hackathon on Wearables this past weekend (Oct. 24-26), they had to sit in the driveway for a few minutes and debrief.

In one intense weekend, they'd immersed themselves in not only the state of women in tech and media as observers and students, but as active industry members, claiming places of their own.

The event, which was hosted by West Virginia University's Reed College of Media and co-sponsored by PBS MediaShift, has been in the works for about a year.

Reed College of Media was looking for an event to launch their new media innovation lab, and professor Dana Coester had an idea for something that combined women, wearables, and media.

"The reality is that women have been largely left behind in the technology industry and are very, very slowly making gains," said Maryanne Reed, dean of Reed College of Media.

The focus on wearables came from not only the fact that WVU has been working with wearables and the role they could play in reporting, but in that the technology is an emerging area.

"Wearables pose a real opportunity for women to get in on a conversation from the very beginning, before the market is saturated, and before the major players have been established," Reed said.

The hackathon kicked off Friday night with a Google Hangout featuring a panel of women in technology from the Google campus, including Jane Schachtel from Facebook, Aminatou Sow from Google, and Tasneem Raja from Mother Jones. It was also moderated by author and media futurist Amy Webb, who recruited the panelists.

The women in West Virginia were able to ask questions and interact through the call and through Twitter.

MediaShift's Mark Glaser was out in Mountain View, California. "We really have to drive home the message that students have an amazing opportunity going out into media and in technology because they bring a fresh perspective... they have this amazing opportunity to become change agents," he said.

The panel hit many topics, from GamerGate to Facebook's recent offer to freeze the eggs of female employees. Sow said early on that part of her philosophy on talking with young women is "finding a place for them in technology and not feeling like we're just telling [them] really sad stories all the time."

From there, there were short lectures on things like Google Glass, and lots of hands on work. The 42 participants, most of whom were students, and some faculty, were divided into teams and tasked with coming up with ideas to develop and pitch involving wearables.

While the hackathon was conceived with the tie-in to media and the role journalists can and should play in the development of wearable technology, it was open to all disciplines, not just journalism majors. Reed said they had everyone from agriculture to accounting majors.

The product ideas themselves also ran the gamut.

Dianna Bell, an arts journalism master's student from Syracuse University was on a team that came up with a concept that involving a wearable microphone for professors which could index frequently-used spoken keywords and match them with recent articles in the news for students to read.

"It was crazy to see what people could come up with in 14 hours," Bell said.

Other ideas involved a bra that could perform breast examinations; an application for news gathering and publishing via Google Glass; and an application young people can use to sign out of social media for periods of time.

The winning team's idea, as chosen by a panel of judges, was a mesh insert for FitBits to measure biomarkers in the female body like iron, potassium, and Vitamin D among others.

Lammers was on the winning team. They went through a whole range of ideas before hitting a wall — and then they finally landed on their final idea. Not only the win, but the experience in general was an empowering boost for the senior journalism major at WVU.

"This came at the right time for me because I am getting ready to graduate, and it did show me that I have a successful future ahead of me and I can do anything I put my mind to," she said.

Both Reed and Coester saw a similarly encouraging lift in spirits from one participant who is a little further away from entering the job market.

A local 8th grader heard about the hackathon and got her dad to ask them if she could join the event.

Reed said Friday night, the girl's dad said she'd been intimidated and a little scared. Throughout the weekend, she gained confidence, and by Sunday her dad said she was walking so fast to get to the hackathon, he couldn't keep up. She stood up in front of everyone and pitched her group's idea.

The transformation was remarkable, Reed said. And Coester said she thought it was pretty awesome she had "the guts that she had to want to crash the older gals' party."

Coester, Reed, and Glaser said they hope to do another hackathon in the future. And after meeting the 8th grader, they want to extend the event to younger girls.

"If you're going to inspire women to enter technology, why not do it earlier rather than later?" Reed said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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